I can’t imagine how it must feel. To rush into darkness in the middle of the night, torrential rain pouring down, seconds later a flood of thick mud crashing through your home, in just moments destroying everything you own and have worked for. This happened to some close friends in the Philippines this week. A typhoon brought widespread and heart-breaking devastation. The poor have no insurance, no savings to fall back on and to recover. I hate that the poor are so vulnerable.
Yet what happened next astonished me even more. Having ensured her parents and children were safe, this Filipina girl hitched a ride into a nearby town, bought bags of warm bread and returned to distribute them to her stunned and shocked neighbours. She then returned to the town to cajole local officials into assembling an emergency response before, finally, setting off to search for a safe and dry room to rent. That was the start of an extraordinary week, entering this New Year 2019.
In the following days, she bought emergency supplies of rice, noodles and other essentials for people living in a nearby jungle village whose homes had been flooded too. They were cut off by a raging, swollen river without food or shelter. She adorned each package carefully in gift wrap so that hearts as well as bodies would be touched and warmed. She then navigated the river, trudged through sodden forest and rice fields and handed over the gifts to astonished, grateful families.
Wow. What a response: this instinct to look out towards others in crisis, to reach out rather than to shrink back, to open up rather than to close down. I reflected on how self-focused I could be, prioritising my own needs over those of my neighbours, paying attention to my own concerns first. I ask what motivates her and she responds simply yet profoundly, ‘It’s what Jesus would do.’ What’s your first instinct in a crisis? Does it evoke self-preservation or radical altruism? What do you do?
‘Of all the things that sustain a leader over time, love is the most lasting.’ (Kouzes & Posner)
I honestly believed I was following Jesus until I took my first step into the Philippines. I had become a Christian some years earlier and, as such, had tried to centre my life on the Christ of the gospels. I say ‘tried’ because it has been a rocky ride so far. Highs, lows and everything in between. I swing from burning inspiration to faltering faith, from close to God to straying widely off the path. I always struggle with church-as-institution and with my own stumbling discipleship. Then I encounter a poor Filipina, a girl who grew up on a remote jungle mountainside, whose life transforms everything.
She is wild, crazy, passionate, funny and compassionate. Much like Jesus – whom she loves – she both inspires and terrifies me: inspires me by what’s possible; terrifies me by what it may call from me. Her life models her own radical mandate: ‘Whatever status or power you have, use it for those who are vulnerable; whatever money you have, use it for the poor; whatever strength you have, use it for the weak; whatever hope you have, use it to bring hope to those who live without hope. Speak up for justice and truth – whatever the cost. Pray.’ She lives it literally – and that scares me.
Where I see issues, she sees people. While I’m still thinking about it, she’s out there doing it. Her self-sacrificial lifestyle looks and feels profoundly reckless and unnerving. It unsettles me. It alarms me. It evokes a spiritual-existential crisis. It shakes everything in me to the core. Yet it also kindles fresh glimmers of light. I see amazing hope on the faces of people whose lives she touches. I see the ordinary-extraordinary miracles that God performs through her every day and it strengthens my own faith. She evokes a yearning in me to see and love Jesus and the poor more deeply: whatever.
‘I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.’ (Tony Campolo)
The first time I heard those words some time ago, I was left speechless and reeling. Firstly, with the scale of the awfulness of the human tragedy and secondly – ashamedly – that I too was shocked to hear a Christian leader use the ‘S’ word. How easily we get distracted, preoccupied or fixated by things that really aren’t important and miss those that are. For those familiar with Jesus’ teaching, logs and splinters come sharply to mind. My last blog, ‘Whatever’, touched on a similar theme.
I visited the Philippines for the first time in 2016. I had visited and worked in various other countries in South East Asia with international charities but this was a new experience for me. One day in the hot sunshine, I sat on a kerb to listen to a talented marching band practising at the roadside. I was vaguely aware of people nearby but didn’t really take much notice. My attention was fixed firmly on the rhythmic band and music and on taking video that I could show friends on returning home.
After a while, I turned to speak to the young woman, a very poor Filipina, who had brought me to that place as her special guest. I was astonished to discover that she had vanished…and then even more astonished to see her with the other people, strangers, nearby. I became aware they were mostly elderly poor people trying to eke out a living by selling what little they could. This girl was on her knees, offering them the very food and drink we had brought for ourselves. I felt humbled and amazed.
This experience, alongside others in the Philippines since, has inspired and rekindled my desire to ‘cut the cr*p’ in my life and to live for Someone, something worthwhile. I hate that the poor are so vulnerable. It feels like a spiritual, existential journey for me. What journey are you travelling? Who is inspiring you? What are you inspiring in others?
'We can be heroes.' (David Bowie)
I’ve known and worked alongside so many heroes that I can hardly begin to list them all. These aren’t famous celebrities, basking in wealth and media limelight. They’re ordinary people who have chosen to live extraordinary lives. I say chosen because they could all have done something different, something more ‘normal’, yet chose – and still choose – to take the road-less-travelled. It’s always a choice, even if it doesn’t always feel like a choice.
There’s Rudi. He’s a social worker in Germany who has committed his life and career to work relentlessly to prevent the social and political conditions that led to the rise of the Nazis. He looks on the rise of the AfD with alarm. And there’s Jasmin. She’s poor and lives among the poorest in the Philippines. She gives every spare peso and moment of her time – with scary degrees of self-sacrifice – to bring love and hope to the most vulnerable people.
Then there’s Sue. She was on the last plane out of Saigon to rescue mixed-race children at the end of the Vietnam war. The plane was riddled with bullets. She and the children lay terrified on the floor as the aircraft fled the runway. She rarely speaks about it now. And there’s Mike. He works with street gangs and drug addicts in the UK, putting his own welfare at risk because he sees potential in people where others only see broken, messed-up lives.
All of these people are ‘followers of Jesus’. They challenge and inspire me and serve as a continual reminder that every moment represents a decision, a choice to live a self-centred life or to serve a higher cause – whether that be God, humanity or nature-environment. I find it easy to get distracted, to slip into pragmatism, expediency, convenience or comfort. Yet I want to live a well-lived life. Who are your heroes and how do they inspire you?
We never really work with ‘just an individual’ because human beings always exist within systems of relationship. (Malcolm Parlett)
You’re not alone. Neither are your colleagues or clients. OK, you may be alone in a room together (if I can use ‘alone’ and ‘together’ in the same breath like this) for a meeting, a training workshop, a catch-up, a coaching conversation. As you focus intently on the other person or group – their goals, interests, ideas, concerns etc. – it can be as if the wider world and its noisy distractions fade out of existence, at least for a moment. There is just you…and me…and us. Our space.
It is a kind of sacred space and it can feel – spiritual. It has a person-centred quality about it. We may conceive of what we bring as the gift of our presence, attention and expertise. It can be immensely affirming for the other and it ensures they feel seen, heard, valued and understood. It can feel like offering…love. But far be it from us to use the L word in a corporate context! So we will sanitise it for now with culturally-safer words like empathy and respect. Still with me?
Now a sting in the tail. There are some important risks here. In our heartfelt desire to be client-focused, how often do we hear trainers and coaches say things like, ‘My job is to help you reach your goals’ or, in marketing-speak, ‘Your success is my success’? I get the principle but it can lead us to approach our work in a blinkered way, as if the person exists in a relational, cultural and contextual bubble. Where are the ethics in this if our sole focus is on the client or group?
Take the person whose success will undermine the success of peers in other teams or the wider strategy of the organisation. Or the person whose success will impact negatively on people and groups in the wider community, e.g. politically, economically or environmentally. Our well-meaning interventions can inadvertently collude with or even facilitate hidden or unintended consequences. So: what can we do to address this? What are we willing to take responsibility for?
I have the privilege of knowing an amazing young woman in the Philippines. She’s a single mum who gets up at 2am to go to a market, buy food items, return home to cook them then back to the street to sell them to passers-by. She also works in a school to earn enough money to support her own mum and her 3 children. She lives in a hostel and shares a room and facilities with numerous other residents in order to be where the work is so that she can pay her bills and send money home.
She regards herself as poor, of little account. She compares herself to wealthy, Western women and feels small. She has little formal education yet is bright spirited and speaks English fluently with natural ability. She’s passionate and really, really cares about people. She gives free food to children on the street who have no money. She teaches the homeless, the forgotten children, to see and treat themselves with dignity and respect. This woman, this angel, completely humbles me.
Yet how easy it is to mistake our wealth, our technology, our education, our comfortable lives for what it means to be human and to succeed. I can hear disturbing echoes from the New Testament – if we have all these things and yet lack love, we are nothing. This woman, this beautiful daughter of God, demonstrates the kind of character, the kind of love, that I only hope and dream of. At 2am, she will be back on the streets again, tired but uncomplaining. God – help me be like her.
It’s Christmas Day and I could have better used the title Christmas mess-edge for this short piece. The story of Jesus Christ isn’t just a sweet and sentimental account of a baby boy born in Bethlehem 2000+ years ago. If it’s true, it’s about God entering the very real messiness of our lives and world and offering the potential to transform them into something completely new. Something beyond our wildest dreams, hopes or expectations. Something that stretches and transcends the boundaries of all human existence and experience.
I’ve known something about this notion of stretching boundaries over this past year, about extending the edges of my own experience. I bought a new bike in the spring, challenged myself to cycle over 1000 miles in 6 months and over 50 miles in a single ride. I had never done anything like that before and yet I did it. I also challenged myself to swim 1 mile 3 times in the same week. And I did it. It felt like I had crossed over an important physical and psychological line, achieving things that had previously felt impossible for me.
I wrote and had published my first article with the British Association for Counselling and Psychology (BACP). I’d written lots of articles for different publications before but this felt like the next step up in a professional field that sits close to my heart. The editor of Coaching Today invited me to write on spirituality and I jumped at the chance. To top it off, I did my first ever series of radio interviews on spirituality too. It was a great opportunity and a novel experience so sit in a recording studio and to share my beliefs openly on air.
And if that was the end of the story, there would be no need for a Jesus, at least for me. But it’s far from the end. I’ve struggled and failed on so many fronts. Sometimes, I haven’t even struggled when I have known I should. I’ve known deeply and personally what Francis Spufford aptly calls the universal ‘human propensity to f* things up’ (Unapologetic, 2013). At times, I’ve failed in relationships, made mistakes at work, fallen short of my own standards, spoken when I should have kept quiet and kept quiet when I should have spoken.
What’s more, one of my closest friends has fought courageously with terminal illness. I’ve felt hopeful and helpless, trying to offer support where I could yet knowing I can’t make it OK. I’ve yearned to take the anxiety away but known that I can’t. I’ve watched Syria in the news, the damage that human beings are able to inflict on each others’ lives, on whole countries and regions. I’ve felt impotent and confused. Not all the time, but enough to know that redeeming the world is something I can take part in yet, ultimately, lies well beyond me.
And so as I reflect on Christmas, I know what it is to be an aspiring yet fragile human being. I’ve felt exciting moments on the edge of success and have known what it is to screw up and need forgiveness. I have felt the amazing love of others, often undeserved yet tangible all the same. At that first nativity, I believe God himself entered the messy complexity of our lives and world with the most profound message of love and hope possible. Not just in words but in a life well-lived and a promise of presence and eternal life. Merry Christ-mas!
Imagine over 2 billion people. It’s enough to make me feel dizzy, roughly a third of the world’s total population, Christians all over the globe marking a very significant event this weekend. Easter. But what does Easter mean for Christians? Why is it so important? How is it different to a colourful, pagan, fertility festival marked by chocolate, rabbits and eggs?
At the heart of the Christian Easter is a cross, a symbol used by Christians to highlight the centre-point of their faith. The cross is a reminder of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified on a cross 2,000 years ago. It’s a shocking symbol, an instrument of Roman torture and agonising death. It draws our attention to a God-man-saviour, prepared to give his life for us.
That’s where it gets hard. What if the biblical account is true? Can I dare myself to believe it? What if Jesus really was the Son of God? Could he really love someone as messed up as me? I can only draw one conclusion. If this story is true, the cross cries out in the starkest possible terms that no matter who we are or what we have done, we really matter to God.
And there is more hope. Easter Sunday marks an equally remarkable event. This Jesus who died is raised by God. Miraculously, he is brought back to life and, what is more, promises us life over death by trusting in him. He offers us light, life and hope in the midst and beyond the dark deaths and despair we may face in life, psychological, emotional and physical.
So that’s where I place my faith. Not in my weak and inconsistent efforts to be a good person, a clever person, an interesting or adventurous person. I know what I’m really like inside. Amazingly, God is never disillusioned with me because he never had any illusions in the first place. I place my faith in Jesus. If the Bible is true, he truly deserves my life.
It stands around the corner from an authentic Thai restaurant in central London. On the face of it, it’s an elegant building. As you walk past, however, you realise with surprise that the frontage is a façade, an elaborate shield concealing a plain office building that lies behind it. It’s a striking metaphor, a symbol of sorts for an inauthentic life. It challenged me powerfully yet silently to consider the masks I wear, the images I project to disguise my real self.
Some years ago, John Powell published a popular, short self help book, ‘Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?’ He explored how we attempt to protect our fragile egos and avoid our fear rejection by acting out roles or playing games. These are defensive routines aimed at minimising social anxiety or negative evaluation. By putting on a front that we believe will impress others, we attempt to feel better about ourselves and to win others’ approval.
At one level, these strategies can prove successful in life and work. It’s one reason why we pay attention to our physical appearance, the way we behave and conduct ourselves in public, the way we present ourselves at job interviews etc. From our earliest childhood experiences, we learn what wins love and affirmation from others within our key relationships, social environments and culture. We learn how to play the game.
At another level, however, keeping up appearances can prove self-defeating. Over time we may feel alienated from ourselves, not sure how we really are, and alienated from others, not sure if we are really loved and accepted. We can feel lonely, frustrated and tired. It’s as if, paradoxically, the façades we create to develop and maintain relationships can have the opposite effect, preventing authentic and intimate contact with others.
This presents us with a dilemma, an anxiety-provoking risk. What if I remove the mask, tell you what I’m really thinking, show you how I’m really feeling? Would you love and accept me for who I am or would you look at me with disappointment in your eyes? Will making myself vulnerable release you to be vulnerable too? Can we find a new way of connecting that feels more real, more authentic, less defended, less like a façade?
It can feel like a breathtaking step. The possibility feels exciting and yet the potential feels daunting. I’m reminded of Jesus’ call in the gospels: ‘remove the mask and come into the light’. There is further New Testament teaching too: ‘perfect love casts out fear’. If God can love and accept me as I am, perhaps I can learn to love and accept myself and to love and accept others too. Perhaps that’s where it starts, feeling truly safe with God.
So therein lies the challenge. As a leader and a coach, am I willing to make myself vulnerable so that others can be vulnerable too? Can I demonstrate unconditional love with such honesty that others feel safe to remove their masks, to take down their façades? Can I find new ways to relate to others with an increasing sense of trust and authenticity, creating ever-deeper levels of contact? It’s certainly a goal worth praying and striving for.
I spent this week with a Christian social worker friend in South Germany. At one point, we visited a project for older people who want to learn how to use new technologies. The project is led by a group of volunteers from a similar age group who act as trainers, mentors and advisers. This friend who manages the initiative entered the room, smiled and said hello to the group, introduced me then walked around the room, purposefully shaking hands and greeting every person individually with genuine warmth.
The thing that struck me most was his profoundly-felt presence in the room. He has an unusual talent for standing, moving and gazing in such a way that demonstrates he is really here and really now. It communicates a deep sense of being and being-with that extends beyond words. The act of shaking hands, of physical contact, felt more than a cultural ritual and created a profound sense of emotional and relational contact with the group. I felt spell bound by this person, this quiet charisma, this dynamic he evoked.
It’s a sharp contrast with an approach to leadership, coaching or training that relies purely on professional competence or expertise. It’s so easy to lose contact with ourselves, God and others in the midst of the business of the day. We can become so preoccupied with a task that we lose sight of what really matters at a deeper human-spiritual level. As I watched this friend and felt his presence, I was reminded of words from the Bible: if I’m clever, competent and successful but do not love, I am nothing. (my paraphrase)
So my challenge as I return to England is to reflect more on my presence; to have a clearer and more focused sense of my deepest beliefs and values; to take a more intentional and resolute stance in relation to others that demonstrates love, warmth, care and authenticity. I want to be more aware of when I behave in professional mode but lose sight of a person or group; when I allow myself to get so busy, so task-focused that I lose sight of my own and others’ humanity. In short, I want to be more like Jesus.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.